Old Trafford, Manchester
The 2010 Super League Grand Final

Ground No. 18
Visited - Saturday 2nd October 2010
Result - St Helens 10-22 Wigan Warriors
Competition - engage Super League Grand Final
Attendance - 71,526

8 months, 30 games, 40 hours of play and it all comes down to this, 80 minutes of rugby standing between being a failure or becoming a legend. It’s do or die, victory or defeat, winner or loser. The game of the season.

To those outside of the Rugby League fraternity, then the idea of the league winner not being the champion is a strange one. At odds with the traditional style of British sports, and regularly written off as Americanisation, but once you come round to the idea that winning the league isn’t the point of the season, then it really does work as a spectacle and is a fantastic finale to a long hard year of hope, expectation and determination.

The idea of a play-off format to determine the winner of a competition isn’t a new one, and far from being an American thing is commonplace in sports throughout the world, including the UK. Football in fact is more of an anomaly, and it makes you surprised that the Premier League have never really thought of it as a money spinner to finish the season on a high with, but far from being a commercial driven thing, in rugby it dates way back to 1904 when Bradford beat Salford at the legendary Thrum Hall ground in Halifax to claim that seasons title. After that it was played for nearly every season up until 1973 when the Premiership started, which in turn ran until 1997 when Super League initiated the Grand Final for the 1998 season.    

Wigan were the first winners of the Grand Final in 1998 beating Leeds 10-4, but it was to be the last victory for the great side of the 90s who were finally on their way out after dominating the game for the previous decade. Despite several subsequent appearances in finals, the next few years would be comparatively barren and a struggle until the autumn of 2009 and a change of management. Terminating Brian Noble’s contract had proved a controversial decision at the time with fans split between those who thought he had taken the club as far as he could and those who felt he deserved more time to build his team. Rookie Aussie coach Michael Maguire was his successor, and if the arguments were still raging, then within weeks of the 2010 season starting he soon put them to bed. Looking fitter, stronger and leaner, the team got off to a flying start, with only one loss in the first 12 games, having defeated Brian Noble’s new side, Crusaders on the opening day. Going top of the table in mid February after beating Warrington, they never came off it, and they proved to be stronger than all the challengers, romping home to the league leaders shield by four points ahead of St Helens. The first round of the play-offs though had seen a disappointing defeat to Leeds, with the 27-26 score not really telling the story of a poor second half, but bouncing back with a win over Hull KR the side put any ghosts to rest in the semi-final at Headingley when they smashed Leeds on their own turf 26-6 to reach the final in style.

Unfortunately I’d not been able to make the Headingley game, so had had to make do with the pub, but the victory was so emphatic that it hardly needed the prize of the Grand Final to make the next week go by in a buzz. Not having discovered RL when Wigan were last in a final, then it wasn’t going to be one I’d miss this time, and with tickets booked, then it was a sleepless night and an early start on Saturday as I headed up town to meet a mate and make our way to the station.

Held at Old Trafford every year since it began, then the journey up to Manchester went by quickly and we were soon in a bar to start the day watching Wolves take on the other side from Wigan in a midday kick-off. This Wigan lot I wanted to lose, but the less said about the game, the better (sadly not merely because this is a rugby review!). Despite a disappointing loss then it wasn’t going to put a dent in the day as we spent the rest of the afternoon in town before heading off to the ground.

The trams were absolutely packed, but it was a good atmosphere, with fans from all teams from all over the country making their way there in good spirits, the Welsh lads on board getting the singing going with Mancunian shoppers looking on bemused as the tram wound its way through city centre streets to the accompaniment of Bread of Heaven filling the air. Arriving at Old Trafford, the crowds were building up, and arriving a little later than hoped for we went straight in and ready for the game.

Perhaps it had just been what I was looking out for, but the press in the week before had seemed to be all about Wigan and (hushed tones) the return of the glory days under Maguire, but for the opponents, St Helens, this game had its own significance. Not only a local derby, it was also to be the final ever match for someone who can only be described as a legend in Keiron Cunningham. Appearing in their fourth successive final, he’d already had a fairytale finish to his career by scoring the final ever try at Knowsley Road as it played out its last game with the semi-final against Huddersfield, and it seemed like the script might already be written for him to go out in a blaze of glory, so all sides of a 71,000 crowd were expectant as the teams came out ready for kick-off.

Following a minutes silence for the tragic death of Terry Newton the previous week, then the game got underway, and it was clear from the off that Wigan were up for it. Whether it was nerves or just sloppy play, with only three minutes gone, Pat Richards intercepted a poor pass from Sia Soliola on the left to gain possession, before three quick tackles and some good passing played in Martin Gleeson on the right who barged his way over in the corner to take an early lead and make it 4-0, Richards being unable to convert. On the quarter hour mark Gleeson got his second in style when Sam Tomkins broke Saints line to race forward, with Tommy Leuluai and Paul Deacon going half the field before Gleeson was played in to finish a wonderful team effort off. This time Richards, with an easier kick under the posts, could convert with no problems to make it 10-0. It was 16-0 after 20 minutes thanks to Paul Deacon’s high kick which had given Wigan another six tackles close to the line after Sean O’Loughlin won the ball back from a Saints fumble, with Darrell Goulding going over in the corner, near where Gleeson had scored the first. Despite the scoreline, from hopes of a rout, the half would end on a bit of a downer with Saints getting one back in the 27th minute through Andrew Dixon, but worse than that was Pat Richards limping off just before the break to end his night all too early.

In the second half, Richards was to prove a big miss, as early as the 43rd minute when Tommy Leuluai went over, only to have his try disallowed thanks to Jonny Lomax stealing the ball as he was going down. A penalty then, and up stepped Mark Riddell, who could only put it wide from a good angle. Nine minutes later though he got a chance to make up for it after Sam Tomkins had reached over the line, but there was another miss as Richards absence continued to show. Five minutes later though and he got it over from a penalty to make the score 22-6, and it looked game over when Liam Farrell went racing through to touchdown shortly afterwards but for his effort to be ruled out for obstruction. In the 73rd minute Francis Meli, somewhat fortunate to still be on the pitch after a high shot on Sam Tomkins went over to give Saints a lifeline, but with the kick missed then despite my heart giving me a testing time for the 7 minutes left, convinced that it was all written for a classic Saints comeback, Cunningham with the winner, then it wasn’t to be, and Wigan were crowned deserved champions with a hard fought victory.

The celebrations continued for a good half hour after, and with the lap of honour done, then we headed back to the tram and on our way home, making the last train just in time to pick up a few beers to celebrate on the journey back. Getting home into Wolverhampton was probably the most satisfying of all with still in a Wigan top, a fair number of people coming up to me in town whilst waiting for the bus saying well done, great game, etc., good to see in a part of the world where RL supposedly doesn’t exist. What will happen next season remains to be seen, but if the team keeps playing as they did in 2010, then with any luck another trip back to Old Trafford looks certain to be on the cards. 

Outside the Ground

Welcome to the Final


The players make their entrance

The players lining up

The South Stand

The North Stand

The East Stand

Ready for Kick Off

Under the Lights


The Champions!

Old Trafford Panoramic
(click here for full size picture)

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